Five weeks ago, there was an entirely different atmosphere around Minnesota football. The Gophers were coming off of a 42-13 spanking at the hands of their once-rival Michigan. It was their second straight loss and one not seen in person by head coach Jerry Kill, who had suffered another seizure and didn’t make the trip to Ann Arbor.
And a local sports columnist suggested that Kill knew that he “has to be on the sideline, and in front of recruits, to do his job well.”
Here we are on November 14, and oh, how things have changed. Minnesota is currently riding its longest single-season Big Ten winning streak in 40 years and has clawed its way to a No. 25 ranking in the current USA Today Coaches Poll. And Jerry Kill is still not on the sideline, although that has become a matter of semantics.
How in the world did this transpire? How can the Gophers be sitting at eight wins and envisioning a ceiling much higher than just about anyone else could have imagined?
Here are eight reasons.
8. A bend-but-not-break defense. Minnesota’s defense is more or less middle of the pack in almost every category, from rushing and passing yards allowed to sacks and turnovers forced. But even with the Michigan and Indiana games, the Gophers are only allowing 23.4 points per game, and lately they’ve been able to come up with a lot of key stops when they’re needed.
7. Fourth down. The Gophers sit atop the Big Ten in fourth-down conversions. Heading into the Penn State game they had made good on 8 of 11 attempts for a 72.7 percent rate, and they proceeded to go three-for-three against the Nittany Lions. Now that percentage is up to 78.6. In the crunch, we’ll take those odds any day.
6. Stability at quarterback. Minnesota has still thrown for fewer yards than any team in the conference, but its quarterbacks’ passing efficiency rating is right in the middle of the pack. And while Philip Nelson has reemerged as the starter the last two weeks, both he and Mitch Leidner have been solid assets this season.
5. Penalties and turnovers. These are key ingredients in any recipe for winning. After nine games, the Gophers were best in the Big Ten at avoiding penalties (with only 36 total for 319 yards), although they had five against Penn State on Saturday. Staying away from penalties doesn’t guarantee wins, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
The same can be said for turnovers, which have played a large role in this season’s success. Minnesota is plus-six for the season—a number that mirrors their success during the winning streak.
4. Rock-solid coaching. Kill hasn’t missed a game since that Michigan contest and has been at every practice leading up to the last three games. Sure, he’s coaching from the booth upstairs, but that’s as much by choice as from medical necessity. He jokes that at this point he doesn’t want to come down to the field and mess things up.
And his assistants don’t miss a beat even if he’s not around. The staff is the most tenured in the nation; Kill’s nine assistants and strength and conditioning coach have served with him for a combined 124 years. They know the drill, and apparently they run the drill just as well as Kill. There has been nothing missing (at least to the eyes of fans) in the last month, and that has kept their leader upstairs watching from the coaches’ booth.
3. David Cobb. You certainly don’t need a top-line running back to have success in football (at the moment I’m not remembering who the running back is for either Texas A&M or the Denver Broncos), but it sure does help. What was once running-back-by-committee for the Gophers—with Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick William, and Cobb sharing carries—has shifted, in part from injuries, to Cobb being the clear No. 1.
He has the ability to find a crease where one doesn’t seem apparent, and more than anyone in the last seven years, he can turn five yards into 50. Not coincidentally, he’s on track to become the first Gopher since Amir Pinnix in 2006 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Cobb’s total now, with three (possibly four?) games remaining: 942.
2. The offensive scheme and play calling. The Gophers’ offense has been somewhere between predictable and vanilla the last few years—to some degree a reflection of Kill’s intent on being successful running the ball.
But during the streak we’ve been able to see some new chapters in the playbook. There have been jet sweeps, reverses, quarterbacks coming in motion from the slot to take a quick snap, and flea flickers on the first play from scrimmage. Toss in those 14 fourth-down plays, and this offense is starting to feel doggone exotic.
1. Intangibles … or some strange, cosmic force. Admit it, Gophers fans, not one of you predicted four victories in a row after the Michigan game. To do so would fly in the face of trends and statistics and point spreads, and… well, reality. It doesn’t make me less of a fan to admit that I wondered aloud if even one conference win was a foregone conclusion.
The head coach had to step aside for a moment, the team seemed to be lacking in execution and confidence, and the schedule looked formidable. And then came those four glorious, unexpected wins.
It’s as if the players channeled the spirits of Bronko Nagurski, Bruce Smith, Paul Giel, and Bobby Bell in a mass huddle in the Murray Warmath Home Team Locker Room. Coach Kill may or may not have been around; that hardly seems to matter.
I’ll repeat what Jean Olson said in my last blog post after Saturday’s game: “It’s fun to come to football now! … Keep ‘em coming.”